One of my favorite character stereotypes is the confident character. Richard Campbell Gansey III, Dorian Havilliard, even Valerie Solomon from Tessa Gratton’s story on Merry Sisters of Fate. There’s something about the character who has it all, who has an all-purpose mask they crafted for themselves over the years. Of course, since we write crafted fiction, this mask never stays on. Something will happen to tear it off, and there— that’s when you really enjoy the character.
Half of me wants to be such a character with such a mask. Half of me just wants to write millions of those characters. For the convenience of everyone, and especially me, here’s a step-by-step how-to on creating the confident character. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on May 20, 2015
I read an article the other day about dialogue and blocking. I have since lost track of it, but its premise struck me: dialogue in a narrative is not the same as dialogue in a movie. It’s simple, but profound, and it’s something I often overlook since I experience stories so often through both film and book.
First off, a couple definitions. Dialogue is the collection of words characters say— hi, how are you, where’s my cat, and so forth. Blocking fills the gaps in the conversation, most notably answering this question: who is speaking right now? The simplest blocking is a dialogue tag. “Find me a stick,” he said. “This is space, I don’t have a stick,” she replied. But ending or beginning every line of dialogue with ‘[pronoun] said/cried/etc.’ can get boring. As you seek to spice it up a little, or as your characters move while they speak, you can put action as blocking instead of a tag. “By all my calculations, Sergeant Roberts actually needs a stick.” The robot scratched its titanium head. “Maybe a candlestick?”
In a script, for film or stage, blocking tells the actor what to do, what emotions they should portray. Here a frown, there a shrug, perhaps now it’s time for a tango? You see that blocking on the screen as you hear the actor’s lines. The two are simultaneous.
Books, on the other hand, can never achieve that. You can only write one sentence at a time— even if you break the sentence in two parts to put some blocking in, the words and the actions don’t happen simultaneously. The reader’s imagination, however, fills this in. Many times, in fact, I’ve read along and found myself imagining faces or gestures the character should be making, based on the words she was saying. Because the writer didn’t want to chop up the character’s words, that blocking never saw the page.
My point is, the dialogue/blocking mix in film is different from the dialogue/blocking mix in books. But the simultaneous stuff isn’t actually the thing. Books and verbal storytelling have another advantage that movies cannot use effectively: the character’s actual thoughts and emotions. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on March 27, 2015
I recently read Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but it struck me hard. One of the themes of the book applies to almost everything: the Unsaid. Words people don’t say.
One of the ‘viewpoints’ of the book consisted of text messages from the protagonist of the first book, Lament. While she had no true viewpoint in Ballad, her texts showed her character arc. Each text, addressed to the viewpoint character, showed a bit of her soul— and each text, personal and short, remained unsent. She never actually said anything she wanted to say.
The viewpoint character of Ballad, on the other hand, made his thoughts the analogue of the unsent texts. Nothing he wanted to say, he said. He thought everything, and made jokes to cover up the silence.
It was a powerful way to write the character dynamics, just between the two of them. When combined with all the Unsaid between the viewpoint character and the other characters, it created an amazing weave of half-truths and assumptions that were too delicate ever to speak plainly.
Is Maggie Stiefvater alone in her understanding of the Unsaid? I don’t think so. This is a concept that finds itself almost everywhere— and I mean that. But for the sake of my sanity, I’ll focus on fiction. You can ponder the repercussions. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on December 5, 2014
In Gifts of Rith, my current editing work in progress, I have a villain. This villain lives up to every expectation of a villain— he fights against the main character, is hugely powerful, and wants to destroy lots of people the main character cares about. He makes mischief for much of the book, blocking the main character at every turn and fulfilling expectations as to villainous behavior. Then, at the end, (spoiler alert) he dies. As villains do.
Unfortunately, his death hit the wrong chord. Instead of feeling powerful and satisfying, this villain’s death felt… jarring. Several eyebrows were lowered in confusion, including my own. Instead of satisfaction, the readers felt slight disgust at how cruel the main character was for killing this guy. The scene as a whole felt— dare I say it?— unnecessary.
You don’t need me to tell you that that reaction was exactly the opposite of what I planned. I wanted a dramatic fanfare, a slow-motion shot of the hero straightening up, victorious over the body of his nemesis. I wanted a good villain death— is that too much to ask?
If the villain’s death didn’t mean anything to the main character… well, yes. It is too much to ask. What was the problem? I needed to make things personal. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on August 31, 2014
Sometimes characters are in tough spots.
Okay, all the time. (At least, they should be.) Characters are always in tough spots, and if they’re at all sympathetic, they’ll probably complain a bit. If characters never complained, somebody would be clamoring for their unique minority to be represented. Not all characters do complain, but many can and will. They can’t just ignore their troubles. That would make them seem unrealistic.
But when characters complain too much… That’s a different problem. People who complain are automatically less fun to be around than people who don’t complain. (That’s why I dislike “Everything Wrong with [popular movie] in # Minutes or Less” videos. Some of the flaws they find are bad writing, but the rest isn’t worth mentioning, and I don’t care.) Pessimists aren’t lovable— they’re whiny. That’s exactly the same effect produced by a complaining character.
That’s not a good thing. Usually, if things are going wrong for a character, they have something that’s supposed to make them likable. The unlikable characters can have as much going for them as they want, but the likable characters are always in trouble. And if the likable characters need to be… well, likable, they can’t be unlikable. That is to say, they can’t be whiny.
Does that mean they can’t complain? Nope, because (to quote paragraph two of this post), that would make them seem unrealistic. Sometimes a character needs to complain and be likable at exactly the same time. That requires a lot more contortions from you, the author. That said, you have a couple options. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on July 27, 2014
Frustration is not an emotion.
I read a book about writing a while ago called Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It reiterated a lot of the concepts in Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint (that’s kind of obvious), but brought up many new topics. For instance, the author claimed that frustration is the writer’s greatest tool. She was right. Frustration drives all character emotion, all through any story. But it’s not an emotion.
Frustration is a state of being. As things go wrong, one is frustrated– it basically means being thwarted or stopped. By that definition, and the assumption that very little should go right for your main character, that character is frustrated almost constantly. In try-fail cycles, they’re frustrated. When a plot twist hits, they’re frustrated. When they can’t win the argument, they’re frustrated. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on May 11, 2014
For the past week, I’ve struggled with a single scene in my novel. It was a fun scene– I got to sink a ship (see meter in sidebar). My voracious fish species got to eat things. All was right in the world. Except… I started the scene, then restarted, then restarted. I went on vacation for three days, then restarted. And restarted. And finally finished it.
It was a scene I knew I had to write. Tensions were escalating, and this scene would instigate another sequence of scenes that would be even cooler. I couldn’t just scrap it because it wasn’t working– it wouldn’t make sense. I toyed with different viewpoints and styles, once only mentioning the scene offhand in a conversation. None of it worked.
Someone wise once said in slightly different words that every scene must do three things: forward plot, develop character, and entertain. I had the entertainment and plot down pretty well– it was a necessary action scene. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the character down. So I added an angle. Conflict here, conflict there, conflict in as many places as I could get. Foreshadowing a character reveal. I added character to a scene that already had plot and entertainment.
That phase of rewriting the scene over and over– that’s what they call writer’s block. At least, one style of it. (There are many.) According to several pieces of advice, I should take a walk, write something else, stop editing myself as I go (that was one I heard today)… There are many styles of advice for overcoming writer’s block. None of it would have worked. Outlining the scene beforehand? Perhaps, but it might have just turned out describing how the ship sinks, and that wouldn’t help with the character aspect. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on April 15, 2014
By the way you make your descriptions poetic or factual, you can manipulate reader reactions. By giving the facts of a gruesome scene, you can inspire disgust or horror. By glossing over those facts, you can inspire a more abstract emotion having to do with the way the scene impacts the character– such as sadness, fear, or more tension. Factual representation gives you an emotional response to those facts, very real and certain. Abstract representation gives you an emotional response to what this means to the character. (I covered all this with examples and pitfalls in my post Writing with Style.)
What does this mean for a character death? In fantasy and science fiction, people die all the time, but the description of that death varies in style. Sometimes it’s poetic, only showing the gun firing and the character’s battleaxe clattering to the floor as if in slow motion. Other times it’s very matter-of-fact, showing the gun shooting the character and then moving on. It isn’t that the factual representation isn’t glossed over– it just isn’t poeticized, shot in slow motion with a tint on the camera and never showing the blood. It can be gone over in gory detail, or it can be stated and passed over. All of these styles create a different reaction from the reader. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on April 6, 2014
In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, the podcasters spoke about three prongs of engaging characters: capability, proactivity, and sympathy. I’ve spoken about Brandon Sanderson’s way of making capable characters. I haven’t spoken about proactivity much (but try-fail cycles have a lot to do with that– I’ll post about it sometime soon). Sympathy, though– I think the ‘casters really glossed over this aspect. Their point was, sympathetic characters are usually assumed, but you can make a character engaging without that sympathy by driving up the character’s capability and proactivity (think Sherlock Holmes or any antihero).
One thing Brandon Sanderson said, however, really struck me. While speaking of fixing a character problem, he said making the character feel the same thing as the reader drives up sympathy. Earlier in the episode, he defined sympathy as just how nice the character is– but I don’t think that covers it. Perhaps he’s done another podcast on this topic, but I haven’t listened to it. I started thinking about it and promptly launched a two hour impromptu speech on character emotions.
I had never really thought about sympathy before. I thought sympathy meant making the reader care for the character, but that’s only one side of it. The real definition is literal; sympathy means (and here I bring out my limited Greek experience) “common feelings”, from syn+pathos. If that’s the case, sympathy with the character means the reader having the same reactions to things as the character does– but it also goes the other way. Characters must have the same reactions as the reader would in that situation. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on April 4, 2014